So, like, I have a fetish, and it’s becoming a problem. If someone told me there’s a book out there and it’s composed entirely of punctuation – no words, just 900 pages of exclamation marks, full-stops, and commas – I’d totally be there. I seem to want [at least a good proportion of] the literature I read to stand on my bollocks in high heels and call me a dirty bitch. Yet, I’m starting to realize what an empty experience that can be. Or maybe it’s that I’ve read all the great stuff – all those knocked-out-of-shape experimental masterpieces – and so I’m left to swill the dregs around in my mouth and it’s, inevitably, leaving a bitter aftertaste. But I’m not sure that’s the case. JR, for example, is very highly rated by the kind of readers I respect, and it’s near 800 pages of unattributable dialogue [or so it’s popularly claimed, but I’ll come back to this], so I ought to love it, I would’ve loved it once upon a time. Now? I’m like the man with crushed bollocks turning to his dominatrix and saying well, yeah, you can terrorise testicles fine, dear, but what else can you do?
I want to say up front that I’m not referring to difficulty here, I am talking about experimental not difficult literature [although the two often go hand-in-hand, of course]. I still like it hard; I still like to work while I read. In fact, for all it’s supposed difficulty I found reading JR a breeze. That’s not a boast, by the way, I genuinely believe that it’s not tough. But it has got such a reputation, you say. Yeah, it has, and it rests on a couple of things, which I’ll try and deal with, in the hope that the readers who do want to tackle the book aren’t put off by that reputation.
Firstly, those who complain about the difficulty claim that there are no clear transitions between scenes. Phooey. I would retort that these people aren’t concentrating and that they ought to read it properly rather than skim-reading while picking their toenails. The transitions are obvious; Gaddis will do one of a number of things to let you know the scene has changed: either he will narrate the change [apparently there is no narration in the book, even though there, y’know, is], or he will have a character say something like that car nearly hit me or it’s really windy out here when the previous paragraph clearly took place indoors, or the characters will change suddenly.
Another aspect of the novel’s so called difficulty centres around the unattributed speech, and, well, I dunno what the people who bring this up are reading. Often a character will say something like that’s true, Jane and so you know, of course, that the previous speaker is called Jane and one can then follow the conversation from there; indeed, as far as I read of the book [about half of it] only one or two people were present and participating during a scene without being acknowledged by name. So, this begs the question, how would you know who these people are, these people who aren’t identified by name? Gaddis uses verbal ticks to identify them, like the headmaster who peppers his speech with ahm. Easy-peasy. As an act of contrition I do want to say before I move onto my reasons for abandoning the book that Gaddis’ dialogue is amazing; one genuinely does feel like what he put down on paper is real speech. And real speech is fucking difficult to capture, and I know this because so many authors are truly abysmal at it.
“I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there’s always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway!”
So, what’s my problem then? My problem with the book is that it just doesn’t go anywhere, at least not in the first half. In part JR is a book about miscommunication, about how no-one really listens to anyone else, and I love that, I really do, because I wholeheartedly agree, and for the first 100 pages, what with everyone trying to have, like, 50 simultaneous conversations, half on which are on the phone, I was really digging this. But 400 pages of it? Is that really necessary? The other central theme of the novel is capitalism; again, I was totally on board with this. The 11 year old boy who gives the novel its title is the best thing in the book; his money making schemes – his almost wide-eyed, capitalist gang-banging – and other shenanigans, are all, on the surface, great fun.
[money sculpture by Scott Campbell]
Yet there isn’t enough of him, or to him. He appears too infrequently, and yet even when he does half of what he says, and is involved in, is a repeat of what he said, and did, the last time he was around. Repetition! See, there’s a big problem with repetition in the book. There are only so many times you can read the same scene, such as JR and his friend squabbling over their trading of crap for example, and it is only one example, before you feel like going postal. Another one of Gaddis’ themes was, apparently, entropy, and yet it reads more like he was interested in monotony.
You might tell me that I quit just before it hots up. And you might well be right, but I’m just not that into books that get-going at page 450. It’s like hooking up with a girl: no, I don’t need to get laid on the first date, but I’m not waiting five years either.